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Home U Rising The public perception of higher education–in Utah and across the country


What is the perception of higher education, both in Utah and nationally? Ken Goldstein, senior vice president for survey research and institutional policy with the Association of American Universities, joins host Chris Nelson to talk about the association’s latest research findings and the takeaways for higher education leaders.

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Chris Nelson:  Listeners, welcome to U Rising. I'm Chris Nelson, host of this episode and chief university relations officer. I'm really excited to have Ken Goldstein with me today.

Ken is the senior vice president for survey research and institutional policy with the Association of American Universities, often known as the AAU. We're going to talk about the AAU’s most recent research findings on the perception of higher education nationally.

Welcome to U Rising, Ken.

Ken Goldstein: Thank you, Chris. Happy to be here with you by Zoom and wish I was out in Utah with you in person.

Chris Nelson: Yeah, I should mention that Ken is at his office in Washington, D.C. So, Ken, let's first talk about the AAU. The University of Utah was so excited to be invited to join in 2019. Most of our listeners are on campus, but for those who don't know who the AAU is, just give us a quick overview.

Ken Goldstein: I will, and I always joke, but it's true and I hope your listeners aren't disappointed when they heard you had someone from the AAU coming because to the extent most people have heard of the AAU, they think it's about high school athletics and they're probably wondering if the Utes got the latest and best AAU high school basketball recruits coming to play for you next year.

So, we're the other AAU. Glad to hear that you were happy to join the AAU and the AAU was thrilled to have Utah join.

So, the AAU is a very, very old association of higher education and there's obviously many universities and colleges in this country and many have different missions and many different sizes. But the AAU’s membership is made up of the top research universities in the country. Many people on campus and many people in the state may not realize that the University of Utah is one of America's leading research universities, in addition to all you're doing in the community, all you're doing in educating students. But there is  a lot of serious research at a very high level and at a very high scale that is coming out of the university. And so you are in a group now with a bunch of other universities that are doing similar things.

  Ken Goldstein is the senior vice president for survey research and institutional policy with the Association of American Universities.

Chris Nelson: Yeah, we are excited to represent the Mountain West. It has been a fantastic collaboration, I think, really across the entire university. But before we get too far into what we're going to talk about, I do want to talk about you just for a minute because you've got an interesting path. Before you joined the AAU, you were a political science professor, lastly at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, correct?

Ken Goldstein: So, I was at University of Wisconsin Madison for most of my career. And then I actually spent some time at the University of San Francisco but was never there. I ran a D.C.-based program and I actually understand Utah now has a D.C.-based program as well. But I was running a D.C.-based program with the University of San Francisco, Berkeley, Notre Dame, University of Michigan.

Chris Nelson: And focus on political campaigns. I know you've done a fair amount of punditry on the election cycles in the past.

Ken Goldstein: So many years ago, and some of our listeners might've even been alive, my first job out of college was with CBS News covering the ‘88 presidential election. And I've continued to work in the news media even while I was a college professor and continued to do that now. So, I worked for ABC News, doing polling for ABC and also doing their election night decision team work—so calling races on election night. And I always had a path that was covering campaigns and politics from the news media and studying campaigns and politics and teaching about campaigns and politics as a professor.

But I wanted to start to be able to help out a little bit, maybe move the chess pieces rather than just studying the chess pieces. But I didn't want to go red versus blue. I didn't want to get into working on partisan campaigns. So, I found a great home doing work for universities, whose mission I believe in so much.

Chris Nelson: And the AAU—71  universities now, I think.

Ken Goldstein: Seventy-one universities, 69 in the United States and two in Canada.

Chris Nelson: And again, this ranges from the big publics to the Ivy League schools and really representing all these schools on issues ranging from immigration to finance to student aid, research. And then your specific specialty is, at least how I know you, is working on public perception of higher education.

Ken Goldstein: Exactly. So, I am the nerd doing polling for the AAU and I also work on some other initiatives we do in terms of institutional policy. But it was interesting, someone who's a mutual friend of ours, Pedro Rivera, who actually just went on to the University of Notre Dame, so he's in your position now . . .

Chris Nelson: Poor guy!

Ken Goldstein: I know, with the fighting in Irish. And so he came out of a political career and when he got to the AAU he was sort of amazed that there were these big, important organizations that both—whether they're a public institution or they're a private institution, everyone has to deal with politics and public perceptions—really had not been doing any polling, which anyone who's been involved in politics or news media or the corporate world knows that research is a real important part of how all of these institutions do strategery.

So brought me on to do a little bit of general polling—and I'll tell you how we came up with “America's leading research universities”—and then happily it's also morphed into doing individual work for most of our institutions. So, obviously we originally got to know each other through general work that Pedro and I did, but then have had a chance to do work for individual institutions in individual states.

Chris Nelson: Well, let's start big picture. Let's start with that national perspective and I'd love to hear that story about how you came up with “America's leading research universities.” Where did that campaign come from? It's a brand, it's a tagline, it's all those things, but maybe give us the background on that.

Ken Goldstein: Well, and as we like to say in Washington, it also has the added benefit of being true, I'll say that, but Pedro and I completely made it up is the truth. So we were sitting around his office and I know you've got some branding experience in your life. Our goal wasn't to brand AAU and make everybody in the entire country know who AAU was. We wanted them to be aware of the unique mission that research universities have.

So, we did the polling thing. I mean one of my lines is, I don't know if it's the funniest line in the world, but if “America's leading research universities” sounds poll tested to you, it’s because it was. And so everyone here is sort of inside the secret, but like I said, it's actually true. Lots of universities in this country, many have different missions, but there's a particular, relatively few institutions, of which University of Utah is one of them that are not only the leading research universities in this country, but really the leading research universities in the world—scientific research, health research, often running hospitals and medical centers, in addition to a variety of other research, in addition to work in the community.

And then, of course, core to all of these institutions is educating students, not only at the undergraduate level but at the graduate level and the professional level. So, we sat around, came up with a bunch of different ways of talking about these universities and “America's leading research universities” tested the best.

Chris Nelson: The University of Utah hosted the Vice Presidential Debate in 2020, and that was kind of our theme around that, “one of America's leading research universities.” We're going to host a presidential debate in 2024, and I suspect we'll be using some of that same material as well. It is just a great positioning statement. It's simple, it's effective.

My premise is I think universities nationally suffer from the classic elephant problem. Everyone's looking at a piece of the elephant, but very few people see the whole thing. They see us as a research entity or they love our athletics or they love the student experience. But I'm curious if you look at that national picture with the research you've done, can you generalize the perception of higher ed in the country?

Ken Goldstein: Yeah, it's a great question and actually it's sometimes a challenge for us because we're 69 institutions in the United States and our institutions agree on most things, but as you said, they're also very different institutions.

And I think the average person, listen, the average faculty member, listen, me before I started working for AAU, when I was assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin, you do not realize what large entities these universities are and how they contribute in so many different areas.

And so, often there can be pretty severe misperceptions about what universities do and don't do. And then it's also the case that people might not even realize when the university is contributing to their daily lives. And I come from a school of thought is, well, let's not blame people for not knowing. Let's blame ourselves for not telling them. And so one of the things the AAU tries to do is tell people the broad story about what we do, but also like all institutions we're not perfect and so identify places where people have some concerns about us and sometimes we need Chris to do his communications wizardry and explain that better and sometimes we need to be better.

But the challenge is, and you don't need a political scientist or a pollster to come tell you this, people are grumpy in this country and people are grumpy about institutions in this country. So you have 20% of the country thinking we're going in the right direction. When trust in so many institutions is low, that also has an impact on what people think about us. Because I mean, we are big institutions in our states, big institutions in our communities and sometimes attitudes about us, we suffer from the technical term of general grumpiness or sourness in the country.

Chris Nelson: Well, and the one thing I would say, I think, universally about college campuses is nobody thinks about college campuses like those people on college campuses. And I think the perception is America should love us. We are driving the economy, we're contributing to a democratic, free society, we're enhancing free speech. But sometimes you get off campus, you get outside of our bubble and the perception is just very different. What were those top concerns that you might point out based on this research, if you're looking at that generalized information? Are there just a few points that you could point to?

Ken Goldstein: Yeah, and I'll first start by agreeing with your premise or agreeing with your characterization of what people on campus think. And they're generally right. People should appreciate what our universities do, but we're not perfect. And it's also all of our responsibilities at a university to be communicators, right?. You are a chief communicator for your university. Your job becomes not only much easier but possible if you have tens of thousands of allies, of people also telling their own stories.

But let me give you sort of the soundbite, if I had to give you the two minute of where we stand. So, I think, as I've said before here, people overall and certainly people in the state of Utah appreciate the research that our universities do. Unambiguously appreciate the research that our universities do. Do they have some concerns that sometimes our universities are not exactly in touch with their values or their political values? Yes, but that's always going to be the case. And I actually don't think that's an existential threat. And listen, Utah is a state that's more Republican than the average state in this country. And so there's probably some things going on at the university that the average, I don't even know what I mean when I say the average voter, but it might not be the mean political position. But that said, overwhelming appreciation for the university. And when you look nationally, there's overwhelming appreciation.

Where the problem is, and I think some of that is on us to fix and also some of it for us to explain better because people really don't get it. They don't think we're as accessible as we really are. And we're obviously talking about University of Utah and talking to mostly people who are in the state of Utah, people way underestimate their ability to go to the University of Utah, their ability to be able to afford the University of Utah.

And I mean both of those things. So, someone who gets in might think they're not able to afford it. And we've done studies where people way overestimate what the cost of college is. There also might be students who, for whatever reason, because it's hard to get into college, don't get into University of Utah when they apply as seniors in high school. I don't know the numbers, they're not in front of me. But there's also an incredible pathway of kids going to community college and transferring to the university. So there is a pathway to one of America's leading research universities in your state and it's much more affordable than people think it is. But we got to be really careful about saying, “Oh, it's affordable.” And telling people that, “Oh, a couple thousand dollars isn't a lot of money” because that sounds obnoxious if we say that from Washington, D.C. to a person with a couple kids trying to make ends meet.

So University of Utah needs to do its job in making sure you're running efficiently and you do. You need to do your job in telling the state legislature to fund you so to make it affordable. And AAU, we need to be telling your story in Washington, D.C. to make sure there is federal support, whether it's research grants or Pell grants, that enable you to continue to be accessible and affordable. So again, we're sort of, I don’t know if we're telling everyone the secret sauce, but accessibility and affordability is something that we worry about. We worry about both explaining it to people and then administrators worry about making sure it's the truth every day when they go into their job.

Chris Nelson: Yes. That interesting challenge of creating a value to it, but also that accessibility like you talked about. I know statewide higher ed leaders are talking about the value of a degree and an impact of a degree, not just from AAU school like the University of Utah, but like you said, that pathway from a trade school or community college and having a great job or if you want to go on to a university. What's the research showing? What's the public opinion on the value and impact of a college degree? I kind of know the answer to this because I just saw this presentation a while back, but it surprised me quite honestly. It's dropping more than I would've hoped.

Ken Goldstein: So, a number of different people ask the question in a variety of ways and one way where you see, and I'm not going to be Pollyannish here, I'm not necessarily going to end with great news here, but to step on the lead, there definitely have been drops in people realizing the value of a college education. The way we asked it is to give people not is it valuable or not valuable, but is it valuable and worth the cost? Is it valuable and not worth the cost or is it not valuable at all?

So listen, the good news is, and I happen to believe that it’s also the truth, right, the not valuable at all, a teeny, teeny minority of Americans or people in Utah would believe that—four, five, six or 7%. The problem is nationwide we have a plurality, sometimes a majority, saying it's valuable, I want it, I want it for myself, I want it for my kids, I want it for my grandkids, but it's too expensive. And back to our previous discussion, we either have to convince people that, well, there actually are pathways to make it less expensive and then we’ve got to work to make it less expensive. And then there's also a chunk of people, which is the minority view, that says, yes, it's valuable and worth the cost. So what we need to do is not so much convince people it's valuable, we've convinced them it's valuable, but that it's valuable, worth the cost, accessible to them and affordable to them.

What I will say is the University of Utah, and Chris knows me, I do really say what's on my mind, University of Utah actually does much better than most of our institutions when we interviewed, when we did surveys of the people in Utah. So there still are more people than I would want saying that it's valuable but not worth the cost. But your valuable and worth the cost number is much higher than we typically see and much higher than the generic college degree. That is the thing that I think your boss worries about more than anything. And most of the college presidents and chancellors worry about more than anything.

Chris Nelson: Yeah, and like you said, I worked for somebody who used to say that communication was too important to be left to the communicators. And it always hits me that you need an entire campus and alumni base. And you look at the University of Utah, we have a quarter of a million graduates living around the country. We see patients from every zip code. We really should be well-perceived. Any other takeaways? Let's talk about Utah, though. I know you did some localized research for us on perceptions of the University of Utah in the state. Any additional takeaways that caught your eye, you think is worth sharing?

Ken Goldstein: Yeah, I mean, I know we're just audio, but if it was video, you'd see me smiling. Your numbers were real strong. And that's not often the case when I do these state studies. And your numbers were across the board strong among different areas of the state and among different political groupings in the state. And that's also something we often don't see.

But I think what's also important to note, and I think I touched on this at the beginning, one of my new favorite questions is just asking people, “Hey, at the end of the day, do you think the state's better off because of the University of Utah?” So, there's probably lots of reasons why someone could be annoyed with one of our institutions or with University of Utah. Maybe it's the students who live next door are a little noisy as we all were when we were students. Maybe there's too much traffic on game day. Maybe there's too much construction. Maybe something else happened, maybe a professor said something that you don't agree with.

Chris Nelson: Have you been on campus, Ken? Those are all very real things you just mentioned.

Ken Goldstein: Right? But at the end of the day, even though Chris gets emails about all that stuff, don't you think the state's better off because of the university? Don't you think the students being educated are better off because of the university? Don't you think the medical care that you're getting is better off because of the university? Don't you think the innovation is better off because of the university?

And even people who will say grumpy things about universities will say, “Yeah, we're better off because of the university.” And happily we see that nationwide, very happily in the state of Utah, we see numbers higher than I've ever seen for that. And at the end of the day, I think we also have to reach that level of comfort because we're all human beings and we want everyone to love us, right? And I think too often, and I'm trying to help you out in your communicator job here, is Chris, can't you make these people who don't like us, like us? Maybe, but that's hard and we're not going to get everyone to agree with us on everything. But when you look at these core measures of appreciation combined with the truth, I think you're in a very strong position where you are. Doesn't mean to say that things . . .  you know, we're in a frothy political time here, and if you think what it took to build our institutions, it's a lot easier to break them and it would be a lot more difficult to build them back up again.

Chris Nelson: What's AAU looking at nationally in terms of congressional action? Anything that you're excited about or anything you're concerned about that our audience should know about related to that last point.

Ken Goldstein: Yeah, not a lot of excitement in Washington, D.C., a lot of concerns. So we're mostly playing defense at this point. We have a divided government. We also then have a divided Congress, which is basically paralyzed. We don't expect to see much and we certainly don't expect to see much in an election year coming up. We're still trying to work to do things like increase Pell grants, but our major focus now is—I don't know how much people follow what's going on in Washington in terms of the budget process—a budget hasn't been passed for the next year, so they keep just passing these continuing resolutions, which are passing, you basically get the budget at the previous year's level, which for a variety of technical reasons is actually a cut for scientific research.

And so we're not lobbying for individual institutions. We're lobbying that the pie is large for scientific research, medical research, NIH, NSF, National Endowment of the Humanities. So we're trying to do everything we can do to make sure that number is high because well, that's who we work for and we also know that that's where the research and development in this country is coming from, it's coming from America's leading research universities.

Chris Nelson: Ken, why is investment in U.S. higher education important globally? What does it look like for our country to compete with other nations?

Ken Goldstein: I think it's important globally for two reasons. One, that when we talk about American science and American research, the whole world is benefiting from that and we should be proud of that.

But it's also the case that we're in a competitive world system now. And while we still have the greatest universities in the world and people still want to come here and study here and do research here, the amount of money being spent in other countries, the amount of the number of Ph.D.s being trained in other countries, and I remember my time as a professor, you would get these reports and they say, “well, there's more research or more papers being done in other countries, but they're not at our level and they don't count the same.”

That's not the case anymore. The level of scientific research in other countries has increased. The funding that other countries are putting towards scientific research has increased, and we are very much in a global competition. And as an American, I want to win that competition. And as a global citizen, I want to win that competition because I think we're also the best at sharing good things with the world.

Chris Nelson: Different track, but this is always an interesting question on the survey data you look at. On the survey I recently saw you asked about fans, fandom, specifically around football, men's basketball. We just finished the last season of the PAC-12. We're going to proudly go into the Big 12. What do you see connected to, you know there's always, every campus has this conversation, I think, the classic is athletics a front porch to the university or is it so different that it is a distraction? I am curious what you've seen in research and what connections there are around public perception.

Ken Goldstein: Sure. So athletics are an incredible front porch for the university, an incredible opportunity for the university, and sometimes an opportunity I think that universities don't fully utilize or realize in telling their story, right? There may be people who are season ticket holders, there's people who are watching your games who may not have gone to the university. And we need to take their fandom as also an opportunity to explain to them the other things that are going on to the university and thank them as well as taxpayers in the state of Utah. It's obviously also something that brings together different generations of alumni.

That said, the conference realignment, what you went through in the PAC-12, the new world we are in terms of money, the new world we are in terms with NIL. There's also danger there for universities. And I'm the biggest college football fan out there, and no one looks forward to the season more than I do.

But when I also look as a student or scholar or observer of public opinion when people have misperceptions of the wealth and structure of our universities, I think some of those misperceptions are driven by the only thing they're seeing is athletics. I mean, listen, pretty cool. I've never been there in person, I need to do that on my bucket list, to go a Saturday night game at your football stadium. Watching on TV, that doesn't look amateur to me, right? And does that then feed perceptions of, “Hey, they're running this professional football team and they don't need money.” So that's a danger we need to pay attention to. But then also when you have that 31/2-hour ad for the University of Utah of the game, making sure we're taking advantage of that in every way possible.

Chris Nelson: Ken, last question. It'll be the big softball one that I'll throw you in your role at AAU, but we talk about investments and people are only going to invest in something they believe in, whether it's coming to our school or through philanthropic dollars or supporting tax revenue coming to us. Ultimately, what's at stake in this country and for the University of Utah around public perception in higher ed? Why is it so important?

Ken Goldstein: It's either a softball or the most difficult question, the most difficult question in the world. Listen, I think for many years people in this country and university leaders took it for granted that we have—and it's not just me putting on my USA cap, which I would happily do—but we do have the greatest universities in the world and we have more of the greatest universities in the world than the rest of the world combined by a lot. And I think the public just sort of assumed that all this great research would come out of these universities and universities realize that, oh, people should just appreciate us. And through both misperceptions and a general souring towards institutions, we're in a world where we can't assume that people know what we do. We have to tell people what we do. And I also think we have to thank people for what we're able to do. And I say this as a former faculty member, and I felt both things.

I was teaching for the University of Wisconsin, I thought the people at the University of Wisconsin should appreciate what I was doing. On the other hand, maybe we as professors should have thanked the people of Wisconsin for allowing us to have these amazing jobs and having the opportunity to teach their kids. And so,  I'm a glass half-full person by nature. And although we are in frothy, difficult times in this country, our universities are this phenomenal national asset. And I want people to understand that and I think we have to take the responsibility of making sure they understand it.

Chris Nelson: Ken Goldstein is the senior vice president for survey research & institutional policy with the Association of American Universities. Ken, thanks for being our guest today. I look forward to seeing you on campus soon.

Ken Goldstein: Absolutely. Thanks for having me, Chris.

Chris Nelson: Listeners, that's it for today's episode of U Rising. Our executive producer is Brooke Adams and our technical producer is Robert Nelson. I'm your host Chris Nelson. Thanks for listening.